Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2005)

Title:  Gilead
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Published:  2004, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2005 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2004 - National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 2006 - long list Orange Prize for Fiction

76-year-old Congregationalist Minister John Ames is dying of a heart condition.  Still capable of preaching and mentally sharp he has decided to write a letter - a journal of his thoughts - to his young son to explain the family's history, who he is, and what he believes.  Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this quiet, profound book is the story of a life and a faith that can move mountains if only it can forgive.

There are certain books that as soon as you read the first two or three pages you know that it is special - that it will change you somehow - maybe not lightning bolt jolts, but small, subtle movements near your heart.  Gilead was that book for me.  Gilead begins with John Ames counting the blessings of his life and expressing the joy of having found love and having a child in the twilight of his years.

" I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle." page 52

What simple words written or spoken that could be life-changing - some one's salvation - maybe we need to say them to those we love.  As we read on though we discover when the "prodigal son" of a life-long friend comes back to town that John Ames has yet to give the greatest miracle of all - forgiveness. Though Ames is a minister he still struggles with a human soul and Robinson deftly and beautifully describes his torment and his epiphany.

In the bible Gilead means hill of testimony and that is what the book Gilead is for John Ames his testimony of a well-lived life. 

My Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011)

Title:  A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author:  Jennifer Egan
Published: 2010, Borzoi Book - Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Accolades: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, long list for 2011 Orange Prize

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a novel that is written as a collection of stories that center around Bennie Salazar a music executive, his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha and the people that weave in and out of their flawed lives. Each chapter is a story that moves through the timeline of Bennie and Sasha's lives and as readers we witness the moments that changed them.

A Visit From the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim, but somewhat mixed reviews from the "everyday" reader.  I understand the division. This book is difficult to pinpoint and to categorize - just writing the first paragraph of this review was hard because it is a difficult book to explain.  But I will tell you that I loved it.  The writing is crisp, honest, and inventive.  There are proses in this book that are so vivid and accurate that I had to stop and read them again and again.

"It's turning out to be a bad day, a day when the sun feels like teeth."  page 60

Time is a key element to the story (The Goon Squad is a reference to time) - it is always there hovering over the characters and they each feel its impact as it changes their relationships, values, and themselves. The book weaves back and forth through a time span of about 50 years starting in the 1970's and ending in a somewhat dystopian 2020.  My favorite chapter is the chapter that is written as a power point by a teenager of today. It is so in the moment - our current time - it is brilliant.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a remarkable, strangely moving story about the one thing we can't escape - the impact of time.

My Rating:  5 out of 5

Friday, July 15, 2011

His Family (1918)

Roger Gale is a widower with three adult daughters and he has suddenly realized he doesn’t know them.  That is where the action begins in His Family, the 1918 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This realization would doubtless concern him no matter what, but he is especially dismayed because he had promised his wife when she died that he would keep an eye on the girls and report back to her when they met again in the afterlife.  He has since suffered a crisis of faith and withdrawn from his family.  But now he means to get to know them once again.

Each daughter represents a possible path for a woman to follow, and tracing the drawbacks and benefits of each path is a major theme in the book.  One daughter, Laura, is a socialite, a party girl with no plans to have children and with no social consciousness.  Another, Edith, is a mother of five who is so wrapped up in her own children that she cannot think or speak of anything else.  The third, Deborah, is a social reformer and suffragist who is terrified to marry and have children because she fears she will never be able to go on with her work, which is the most important thing to her.  Roger Gale is most often perplexed by each daughter, and even more so by the interactions between them.  The narrator clearly favors Deborah, the social reformer, from the start and Roger gets there eventually too. She is, obviously, the best of his daughters.

The woman question was on the top of the nation’s mind in 1918, so it’s no surprise that this book was awarded the Pulitzer.  But there is more to it than that.  A deeper and more enduring theme is mortality and how we find immortality in the lives of our family.  Before she died, Roger’s wife told him, “You will live on in our children’s lives.”  Throughout the book he realizes the truth of that statement, as he gets to know his daughters and finds himself in each of them.  He feels the roots of his family before him and seeks comfort in the fact that he, too, will be a figure in the distance to the coming generations. 

Finally, Roger often contemplates the youth of mankind – he feels as a child still, and he sees everyone else in the same way.  All his life he has felt that he is just beginning, and now he is already nearing the end.  As he walks through a birch grove on his farm one evening, he comes to an understanding of it all.  “It seemed to Roger that all his days he had been only entering life, as some rich bewildering thicket like this copse of birches here, never getting very deep, never seeing very clearly, never understanding all.  And so it had been with his children, and so it was with these children of Edith’s, and so it would be with those many others – always groping, blundering, starting – children, only children all.”

The book also deals with the growth of New York City; immigration and poverty; and World War I.  Roger Gale came to New York when horses and carriages traveled its roads, and now he has to face the crush of modern life with its fast cars, tall buildings and bright lights.  Little did Roger know that the chaos of urban life was only just beginning.  One facet of this new city life that Roger struggles so much with is the influx of immigrants and the rise of tenements.  As he gets to know Deborah he sees her work with the children of these tenements and he gains a new understanding of the deprivation they face.  When World War I breaks out, he is faced with suffering on an even grander scale.  Roger comes to a new understanding of humankind and he learns to make sacrifices to help those beyond his own family. 

These political themes play an important role in the book, but it’s true strength is in dealing with the personal.  As Roger Gale comes to know his daughters, we come to know more about life.  Can we ask anything more from a novel?